What You Need to Know About Guinea’s Presidential Election (part 2)

Note: when I published my last post, the presidential election had been rescheduled for October 31. Since then, the date was pushed back to November 7. Part 1 is here.

Guinea’s post-independence history and politics have been closely
intertwined with the country’s military. Reviewing Guinea’s military
history can shed light on contemporary political dynamics. The army,
which constituted a pillar of power during decades of dictatorship, is
notorious for corruption, lack of discipline, internecine conflicts
and divisions along ethnic and generational lines. Rather than a
stabilizing force, the military in Guinea has contributed both to an
ongoing climate of impunity and to the silencing of political
opposition. To understand this deeply dysfunctional military, we have
to go as far back as 1958, when Guinea was the only colony to refuse
the post-independence deal proposed by the French. Instead of choosing to become part of a new French Community, Guinea chose complete autonomy from their colonial rulers. While in other places the transition from colony to member of the community meant that key political, economic and military sectors were still controlled by the French, Guinea was on its own following their decision to opt for total independence.

When the French left Guinea, they dismantled the leadership and
bureaucratic architecture they had put in place – often destroying
archives – and cut all ties with the country. Within a month of
Guinea’s declaration of independence, under the leadership of young
unionist Sékou Touré, a new army was formed. Composed of Guinean
soldiers who had served in the French army, members of the former
territorial gendarmerie, and youth recruited in high schools and
colleges, the army was used to entrench Touré’s rule for nearly three
decades. The French decision to take apart the military they had built
would hamper the effectiveness and reliability of the armed forces
from the beginning. According to human rights activist and former
Guinean military official Mamadou Aliou Barry, a lack of resources and
inadequately trained officers “handicapped the Guinean army from its

Touré, feeling threatened by young, disgruntled soldiers in the ranks,
and convinced that a Fulani conspiracy was afoot in an effort to
destabilize his regime, purged the military of its “rogue” elements,
sending them to their deaths or Camp Boiro, the infamous gulag near
Conakry. Under Touré, a Malinke, discrimination against other
ethnicities – in particular against the other dominant group in
Guinea, the Fulani (also known as Peul) – was used to create deep
divisions within military and political ranks. Officers loyal to Touré
would often wind up in the better-paid and more prestigious special
forces, including the president’s personal guard. To this day
inequalities within the military fuel potentially destabilizing

When General Lansana Conté – a Soussou – came to power in 1984, he
restored some order to the military. Even so, unfair recruitment
policies favoring some ethnic groups over others, and the further
stratification of the system along generational lines, characterized
the military during Conté’s rule. During the 80s and 90s and into the
new century, instability in neighboring countries led to the
radicalization of marginalized officers in the security sector, even
as Guinea started sending soldiers to UN peacekeeping missions in the
region. Years of autocratic rule, manipulative politics and weak
institutional control have led to a bloated, scattered and
undisciplined 30,000-man-strong security sector. Analysts agree that a
deep reformation of the security sector is critical to the process of

As the end of Lansana Conté’s rule became imminent, the traditionally
timid unions and political opposition raised their voices. In early
2007, Guinean trade unions called a strike to protest against
corruption, bad governance, and deteriorating economic conditions. As
a Human Rights Watch report notes: “For the first time since Guinea’s
independence in 1958, tens of thousands of people – men and women, old
and young, including members of all of Guinea’s major ethnic groups –
took to the streets to demand better government.” The movement,
though, was violently suppressed by the army and police: the crackdown
resulted in at least 129 dead and more than 1,700 wounded, hundreds of
them by gunshot. Previously, in June 2006, demonstrations against the
rising prices of basic commodities were met with similar
state-sponsored suppression, during which security forces shot dead at
least 13 unarmed demonstrators.

The bloodless coup led by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara in 2008 was not
a surprise; it was widely expected that army officers would take over
power at the end of Conté’s life. According to the International
Crisis Group, the junta led by Dadis further exacerbated the situation
by using the army against political opponents, fostering tension
between the junta and the rest of the armed forces and recruiting
ethnic militia.

Dadis’ ethnicity – Guerze, a minority group living primarily in
eastern Guinea, in the forest region bordering Liberia – also
contributed to increasing resentment, not only within the armed forces
but also among the general population. The Peul people felt that after
decades of Malinke and Soussou rule, the time had come for a leader to
represent their interests. These deepening tensions began to play out
in the open in mid-2009, when Guineans again took the streets,
demanding free and fair elections. On Sept. 28, 2009, a demonstration
in a stadium in Conakry was again met with shocking levels of
violence: 150 opposition supporters were massacred, and more than one
hundred women were victims of brutal sexual violence.

A Human Rights Watch report alleges that the violence was orchestrated
by senior junta officials, and it is widely thought that Dadis’
personal guard were among those fomenting unrest. None of these
incidents, in which grave human rights violations were perpetrated by
official representatives of the government, have made their way
through a court system. In spite of continued condemnations from the
international community and rights groups, the Guinean court system
has utterly failed to bring any accountability or justice.

These incidents are symptoms of the indiscipline, corruption and abuse
of power that have come to define the Guinean armed forces. In recent
months, under Konaté’s transitional rule, the armed forces have seen
some improvement; the general has been rewarding good behavior and has
been equally as stern with insubordinate officers. Nevertheless, the
tensions surrounding the second round of the presidential election
have been amplified by ongoing violent suppression by police and
military officers: beating, shooting and intimidating protesters,
ransacking homes and generally contributing to inflaming supporters of
the two remaining candidates: Celloun Diallo, backed almost
unanimously by the Peul; and Alpha Condé, a Malinke.

It is not surprising that Guinean military officers would attempt to
destabilize the transition to democracy, because the stakes are high:
a reform of the security sector is inevitable under civilian rule. The
army, set to relinquish formal power when a new president is elected,
will likely try to retain some form of control. In many ways, a
peaceful and successful transition to civilian rule will depend on the
willingness of the army to accept inevitable changes.

In the next installment of this series, we will look at the two
presidential candidates – Alpha Condé, the long time opposition leader
and unionist, and Celloun Dallein Diallo, who was prime minister under
Conté’s rule –and examine how the electoral process has unfolded in
recent months.

Further reading:

International Crisis Group

Human Rights Watch

Reuters – Fact Box: Key political risks

Correction: Thanks to a reader for pointing out an error in a previous version of this post. We had originally written that Dadis was Malinke – he is in fact Guerze, a minority ethnic group.